Ramsey and Washington County’s food scrap recycling program to expand this fall

18 July 2023

Maplewood Mayor Marylee Abrams got the news on Sunday that Ramsey and Washington counties will be soon expanding a pilot program and collecting food scraps from all residents in her city.

On Monday, Abrams joined officials from the counties and the three other test cities — Cottage Grove, Newport and North St. Paul — to learn more about the expansion of the program and to tour a new addition at the Ramsey/Washington Recycling & Energy Center in Newport that was designed to support what will soon be the largest residential co-collection food scrap recycling programs in the state.

The 24,000-square-foot addition, funded in part by $7 million from the 2020 bonding bill, is designed to sort more materials from the trash, including food scraps and organic-rich materials. Once the system is up and running to specifications, the food scraps will be composted. Eventually, officials say, the materials will be turned into renewable natural gas.

“This is such a great opportunity for our community,” Abrams said Monday. “We are a sustainable community. I already drop my compost off at a collection site, and now I can just put it in my garbage. It’s so convenient. There’s no excuse. I think people are going to be very excited about this.”

Food scraps, such as fruit and vegetable peels, eggshells and bones, make up 20 percent of the waste generated in Ramsey and Washington counties.

Starting this fall, residents of Newport, Cottage Grove, North St. Paul and Maplewood will be able to throw away food scraps in special compostable bags. The bags, which are free and will be provided to residents, will be collected on regular trash pickup days at no extra cost.

The waste will be taken to the Ramsey/Washington Recycling & Energy Center and sorted by computers programmed to identify the compostable bags. The bags, which come in 6-gallon and 13-gallon sizes, are three times thicker than a normal plastic bag to withstand the sorting process; the average bag weighs 8 pounds, said Sam Holl, facility manager.

Once the bags are identified, robots will pick them out, separating them from the rest of the garbage, Holl said. The trash that is left over will then go to the center’s other processing lines, he said.

An employee of the Ramsey/Washington Recycling Energy Center in Newport uses a front loader to move trash containing bags of food scraps across the facility’s new tipping floor in July 2023. (Courtesy of the Ramsey/Washington Recycling & Energy Center)

The new sorting technology means that 60,000 tons of materials that would have previously been dumped in a landfill or incinerated each year will now be diverted from the waste stream. That’s enough recyclables and food scraps to fill Allianz Field, the soccer stadium in St. Paul, three times, Holl said.

Katrina Kessler, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, on Monday praised the food-scraps pickup program launch and expansion of the facility’s recycling recovery system.

The metro area “continues to generate more trash, and our landfills are filling up,” Kessler said. “To reduce waste, we must make recycling and composting as convenient as possible for residents. This innovative program … helps us meet our goals to reduce waste and demonstrates Minnesota’s leadership in developing cutting-edge solutions that protect the environment and our communities.”

The new program and expansion is a significant step forward in the counties’ progress toward the state’s climate initiatives and 75 percent recycling goal, said Washington County Commissioner Fran Miron, who serves as chairman of the Ramsey/Washington Recycling & Energy Center’s board of directors.

“We are excited to bring a second life to material that would have normally ended up in landfills or incinerators,” Miron said. “By capturing food scraps and organic-rich material with these new recovery systems, we will produce valuable resources that power homes through the creation of renewable natural gas and improve soil quality in our communities.”

The pilot program started this spring with about 2,200 eligible households in parts of Cottage Grove, Maplewood, Newport and North Saint Paul. Those neighborhoods were selected based on operational parameters — waste is directly hauled to Ramsey/Washington Recycling & Energy Center, rather than delivery via transfer station, officials said.

The pilot communities are representative of the diverse communities and housing type in the counties; instructions about how the program works have been translated into Hmong, Karen, Somali, Spanish and Oromo, according to officials.

All Ramsey and Washington County residents will soon be able to participate in this program at no cost, no matter the housing type, said Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt, vice chairperson of the Ramsey/Washington Recycling & Energy Center’s board of directors.

“This model prioritizes equity and results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions when compared to other methods of food scrap collection,” she said.

The sorting system must reach 94 percent compliance before the waste can be composted, likely at a composting facility in Louisville Township in Scott County owned by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. It’s currently at about 75 percent.

By 2026, the food waste should be processed using anaerobic digestion, which will create a renewable natural gas, said Michael Reed, Ramsey County’s division manager for public health and environment.

“This can’t happen fast enough for a lot of our residents,” he said.

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